Is your marriage ready for a baby?

Christy and Paul Menard are confident, well spoken and wise beyond their 24 years. They’ve also been together since high school and describe themselves as each other’s best friend. So when the couple from Prince George, BC, began preparing for their first child last year, they were sure they could handle it. “We thought we were the turbo-couple who could handle anything that was thrown at us,” says Christy.

“We were pretty arrogant about it,” Paul agrees. “We didn’t think that one little baby would have a drastic impact. We figured he would fit into our life and it would all work out with just a little bit of disruption.”

Then Hawksley arrived in December, after four days of labour and a C-section. Christy watched her laid-back and unflappable husband pushed to his breaking point from sheer fatigue, while Paul saw his upbeat wife endure the postpartum blues. The turbo-couple was feeling the strain. “We spent so much time looking after the baby’s needs that we forgot to look after each other and our needs as a couple, and it got pretty stressful there for a while,” Christy remembers. “Even when we did have a few moments alone together, we were so tired that all we wanted to do was sleep. We didn’t even want to look at each other.”

No experience in life can compare with bringing your first child into the world. It’s a moment that changes everyone — and every couple. There are wonderful moments but, as the Menards discovered, those first few weeks and months ain’t easy. “It’s a very difficult time, and I don’t think people are prepared for it,” says Karen Hirscheimer, a couples therapist in Toronto. “They don’t expect it to be as hard as it is.”

Hirscheimer says that having that first child puts a magnifying glass on a couple’s relationship. “Whatever issues were there before become exaggerated,” she says. “People don’t necessarily recognize that if they have issues, throwing a baby into the mix is just going to make things more difficult. That’s disappointing for people — they hope a baby is going to bring them together, but often it’s the opposite.” Research seems to back that up. A study at the University of Washington in 2000 found that two-thirds of women reported a decrease in marital satisfaction in the months after their first baby.

Amanda Planetta, the Toronto mom of four-month-old Olivia, admits she was unprepared for the effect her baby would have on her relationship with her husband, Tayo. “The lack of sleep is something that you can’t really prepare for. No one explains how much it tests your patience as a couple. You’re devoting all of your time to this new baby, and it’s a lot of fun, but it’s stressful when you don’t even have time to sit and talk anymore. Even eating dinner — one of us sits down to eat while the other one plays with her, then we switch. That time together is just gone, and that’s the biggest adjustment we’ve had to deal with.”

That adjustment means reframing your relationship: You’re not just a couple anymore, you’re a couple with a baby, and that takes some getting used to.

There is one piece of advice that people give new parents with tiresome regularity: “Make sure you leave the baby with someone and go out as a couple.” This tidbit is in the same category as maximizing your RRSP contribution — great advice, but unrealistic for many people. “When I heard people suggest that, I just had to roll my eyes,” says Christy Menard. Her family lives two hours away, and she’s just not ready to leave her baby with some 13-year-old down the street. Planetta is in the same situation, having recently relocated from Nova Scotia. For her, time without the baby means leaving Olivia with her husband so she can get her hair done. “As for the two of us getting out together, that hasn’t happened since she was born.”

While packing up and escaping for a dirty weekend may be months or years off, both couples have learned to carve out time together without straying far from home. “When Hawksley is asleep, we’ll watch a movie together,” says Christy, “or we’ll make love, or we’ll take his monitor outside and we’ll play in the snow or shovel the driveway together.” Planetta has come to enjoy the simple pleasures of a family stroll. “Sometimes he’ll come home from work early and we’ll all go out for a walk together in the afternoon. We talk about what happened to him at work that day, or what I did with Olivia at home, or we’ll talk about things in the news.”

Hirscheimer would approve. She stresses how important it is for new parents to talk to each other while avoiding my-day-was-harder-than-yours competitions, especially if one partner is home with the baby while the other is at work. “So much depends on the way the conversations happen. If they always end up being a dumping session, no one wants that. But if it’s more of a sharing session —‘Tell me about your day’ — then that’s a way to stay connected.”

The difficulty, she acknowledges, is that relationships usually happen in the evening, when people are at their worst. “It’s understandable why people get into conflict because they’ve had stress piling up all day. The climate at night isn’t inviting, which is why these checking-in conversations are not necessarily uplifting.” That may be why some parents who do manage to get out together prefer Sunday brunch to a late dinner on Friday.

Hirscheimer says there’s another common flashpoint for new parents that has nothing to do with fatigue or fussy babies. It stems from a change in identity that parenthood brings, and the unwillingness to discuss it. “Rather than being open and honest about their fears, some couples tend not to talk about them. They don’t want to upset the apple cart, or they feel guilty about thinking these things, so they come out in destructive ways.” Sometimes these issues break down along gender lines, and it’s hard for one partner to understand what the other is going through. For example, a woman may feel unattractive because of the changes in her body, and because she’s feeling more like a mom than a lover. Rather than explaining this to her partner, she might simply refuse or avoid sex with him. “The husband ends up feeling rejected and pushed away.”

New fathers, on the other hand, can feel trapped by their new responsibilities, especially if they’re doing a job they don’t enjoy. “For men, there are often issues on the financial end — natural fears come up, such as, ‘Am I going to be able to support my family?’” Again, the men may be reluctant to admit to these fears, so they act them out by griping about how expensive things are, or by endlessly reminding their partner about how hard they’re working.

Some new moms and dads may also feel that the qualities they once found attractive in a companion aren’t necessarily what they want in a co-parent. “A woman may have been attracted to a guy who’s laissez-faire and easygoing,” Hirscheimer says, “but when it comes to bringing up a child that might be seen as irresponsible.”

Crystal Chapeski, a new mom in Perth, Ont., remembers having this worry. She and her husband, Jamie, are 23 and 25, respectively, and their son Jesse was, well, a pleasant surprise. “Jamie is a kid himself — at least, a kid at heart — and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s not ready to be a dad.’” She got her answer when her son was born prematurely and spent his first two weeks in hospital. “Every night after Jamie got off work, we drove an hour to Ottawa to see our baby. We both went through an emotional roller coaster, and he was my shoulder to cry on. He was pretty much my backbone until we finally got to bring Jesse home. Our son’s difficult start gave my husband and me a closeness we could never have achieved through anything else. And he’s a great dad.”

It comes down to the willingness to work as a team, Hirscheimer says. “If couples learn how to negotiate and collaborate well, then they can take on anything and still keep the joy in their relationship. They can enjoy all the changes that come with a new baby.” It sounds simple, but she can attest that many couples don’t realize it until it’s too late.

Crystal and Paul figured it out as soon as Hawksley was sleeping though the night. “Once he got on more of a schedule, we had a long talk and both realized the best thing we could do for our child was to love each other well. We stopped passing the baby back and forth, stopped taking turns with him, and started acting more as a team.” It wasn’t that they changed their daily routines, but rather they changed the way they thought about them. Rather than trying to fit the baby into their old lives, they realized he was an integral part of their new lives together. “Once we did that, things started getting a lot easier around here.”

What you can do now
Open communication is important for parents of a newborn, but if you’re expecting your first child, the talking should start well before the baby arrives.

Couples therapist Karen Hirscheimer says it’s all too common for spouses to have entirely different expectations. “I can think of one couple where the woman was extremely disappointed that her husband wasn’t more actively engaged with the children. She expected he would be home more helping out, but he’s saying, ‘We can get a nanny or some extra help, but I never said I would do this.’”

Hirscheimer recognizes that parenting is very much a learn-as-you-go job, and babies have a way of messing up life’s blueprints. “It’s true there’s only so much you can discuss ahead of time, but you should really have some vision that you’re working toward, with the understanding that you’ll make adjustments as you go along.”

Toronto mom Amanda Planetta found that attending prenatal classes with her husband was a great way to kick-start conversations about their lives ahead. “They showed videos in the class, and for a lot of us it was an eye-opener.” It also became an enjoyable ritual for the couple. “Every Thursday, he would drive downtown and we’d spend from 6:30 to 8:30 in the class. After they were over, we were actually disappointed because it had become such a routine for us.”

Like an engaged couple that spends more time discussing the wedding day than their future marriage, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the pregnancy and neglect the lifetime that will follow it. That’s when both expectant parents should step back and look at the big picture, Hirscheimer says. “People are so hyperfocused on doing what the books say that they forget it’s more important to have some fun, some peace and some loving space.”

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